However, any British opt-out would require the unanimous agreement of every other member-state. Conversations with diplomats from Central Europe suggest that there is very little goodwill towards London, even among its formerly stalwart allies.
The Central Europeans see the UK as an important partner. When David Cameron circulated a letter in February 2012 outlining single market reforms that would revive the European economy, five of the eleven co-signatories came from Central Europe, with Germany and France the notable absentees. The new member-states sided with London against Paris and Berlin over the Iraq war, and the UK shares their desire to bring more Balkan countries into the EU – again, against much scepticism from many continental countries.
And yet the UK cannot count on all Central Europeans to support its demand for opt-outs from EU legislation. This is for two reasons: Germany has become the central focus of the region’s foreign policies, and Britain has come to be seen by other member-states as taking advantage of the common currency's existential troubles to defend its narrow interests.
Germany is by far the largest investor in Central Europe, and its economy is deeply embedded in the wider region. When I asked a former finance minister from Central Europe to predict his country's growth rate, he replied "take Germany’s number and add one percentage point". Most Central European governments also assume that there is a possibility of the eurozone fracturing and losing some of its member-states. If and when it happens, they want to remain a part of the Berlin-led economic core. London will be of little help in such a crisis – it is too far away, has too few investments in Central Europe, and wants to have less and less to do with the EU in general. So the new member-states (and others in similar situations such as Denmark or the Netherlands) will have few reasons for wanting to spend political capital on supporting UK demands for exemptions from EU legislation, especially if Germany opposes them (and senior officials in Berlin take a hard line in opposing British attempts to repatriate powers).
Furthermore, the UK offers nothing in return (it is not contributing to the eurozone bailout fund) and Britain’s exemptions may adversely affect other countries’ economies. They fear, for example, that if the UK relaxes social protection for workers (a key Conservative demand), businesses elsewhere in Europe will migrate to the UK. "London is engaging in 'beggar-thy-neighbour' tactics", one official from Central Europe told me (though France and others say the same of the new member-states' low corporate tax rate). In December 2011 Britain threatened to veto the proposed ‘fiscal compact’ to secure an opt-out from rules governing financial services. But the tactic misfired – the rest of the EU minus the Czech Republic agreed to form the compact anyway; they did so outside existing EU treaties and without Britain. Any future banking or fiscal union will almost certainly be organised in a similar way, a Baltic diplomat told me, because the UK and the Czech Republic – and possibly others – do not want closer integration. This leaves London without any good means to pressure others to secure its opt-outs. "The rest of the EU now knows that it is possible to isolate Britain, and they are more willing than ever to do so. It is not clear that Britain realises that", the official said.
Nothing has hurt Britain's image elsewhere in Europe more than the perception that London is failing to help to end the crisis and – worse – that the UK is taking advantage of others' woes. A Polish official told me that during the December 2011 negotiations London lobbied Warsaw to stay out of the fiscal compact. Its creation is a key part of the member-states’ efforts to stop the run on their sovereign debt. The fact that Britain not only decided against joining it but sought to discourage other non-euro countries from doing so – presumably to avoid being isolated – has been seen by many as an act of remarkable ill will. According to a senior Baltic official "Britain is a nuisance; it imposes an additional burden on us of having to go around it, complicating negotiations". This is not entirely fair: British proposals on how to stimulate economic growth, which many Central European governments signed, are among the most thoughtful of such contributions. But European diplomats think that London puts a lot more energy into demanding special deals for itself than solving the crisis.
The Central European officials I interviewed sounded genuinely regretful of Britain's growing estrangement from the EU – there was no sense of 'good riddance' or gloating. But Britain’s likely demands for opt-outs from EU policies will have very little support from them (with the possible exception of the Czech Republic). A dangerous situation has emerged. Even though the government in London seems likely to attempt to unpick some of its ties, rather than sever them all, it risks rejection. And would a bruised UK want to remain in the EU? The Central Europeans fear that Britain may drop out in anger, in effect leaving the EU by accident rather than by design. But, as one Polish official acknowledged "as long as the eurozone is a mess, Britain will not want to be shackled to a sinking ship. We need to sort out our banks and economies first, thus giving London the reason to stay".
Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.